Up a River: Navigating Amazon’s Strange, Occasionally Successful, Borderline-Incoherent TV Strategy

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Close your eyes for a moment and think about Amazon. What do you see? Perhaps visions of bulk paper-towel orders dancing in your head or a slithering pile of strangely low-priced audio cables? Look, there’s that copy of Fifty Shades you didn’t want to buy in public! And there’s the toaster that was cheaper at the mall and the sneakers that weren’t! Pay no mind to that pet snuggie perched at the top of your wish list. We all have digital fingerprints we regret.

Now open your eyes and let the cool breeze of awareness wash over you: For as much as you use Amazon, it’s likely that you don’t think about it much. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s somewhat remarkable. At a time when even the largest companies are desperate to be noticed, Amazon has a different goal: It wants to be ubiquitous. Consider the way the onetime “digital bookstore” has relentlessly nudged its way into every corner of consumerist life, from groceries to music, offering the same deep discounts and the same reassuringly bland interface whether you’re purchasing cake or Cake. Over the past decade, what has separated Amazon from its Internet rivals is its dogged determination to solve the problems we already have, not the ones we’ve yet to notice. There’s little flash to what Amazon does. The company excels at spackling over the holes in your daily life with economy and aplomb. It’s there for you, whether you notice it or not. Apple once asked us to think different. The only thing Amazon ever asks me is what I thought of its cardboard boxes.

So you’d think that when Amazon got into the television business two years ago, it would do so in similarly utilitarian fashion. After all, the decision to produce original content was about numbers, not art: With so many streaming services jockeying for the same stale content, making the blades was quickly becoming as important (and profitable) as providing the razors. The safe thing for Amazon to do would be what it’s always done: get busy giving people what they already know they want. And so I would have expected a heavy investment in the sort of old-fashioned sitcoms that TBS and TVLand have made hay with of late — come back, Kelsey and Martin, all is forgiven! — and a steady, unsexy diet of procedurals. (Maybe a deal to resurrect all the Law & Orders that have fallen in the line of duty?) It would be Amazon, not Netflix, that would provide unrisky life preservers to canceled stiffs like The Killing and Longmire. Chock-full of staples and margin-managed complementary content, Amazon TV would be as dependable as monthly diaper deliveries and about as exciting.

Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to stability. Earlier this month, Amazon Studios — the nascent wing of the $74 billion company tasked with generating original programming — stunned many in Hollywood by winning not one but two Golden Globes for Transparent, its beautiful dramedy about sexuality and secrets. (Amazon thus became the first streaming service to take a major series award, a development that likely had Netflix CEO Reed Hastings taking his morning coffee like this.) Accepting his trophy from the stage at the Beverly Hilton, star Jeffrey Tambor proclaimed Amazon “my new best friend,” later saying “they have guts and they have taste.” Never mind that the highly specific, meticulously assembled, and deeply personal Transparent seems more suited to Etsy than Amazon. In one night, Amazon had gone from pesky start-up to seasoned player in the eyes of the industry, winning plaudits from media gatekeepers as well as the grudging respect of its programming peers. How, exactly, did we get here? Is a precious jewel box like Transparent really the future of a superstore that prides itself on providing the biggest possible box?


72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press RoomGeorge Pimentel/WireImage

To understand Amazon’s sudden, uncharacteristically noisy emergence as a creative player, one shouldn’t look back at the company’s success in delivering random stuff to your door. Rather, look at Amazon’s recent failures. As explained by this devastating Fast Company article, 2014’s Fire Phone was a catastrophic belly flop that cost the company a fortune in terms literal and figurative. (The phone launched last summer with a $199 price tag. It now retails for 99 cents and the company has taken a $170 million write-down largely due to unsold inventory.) To read the story is to understand how the needs of the everyday customer were subsumed by the needs of one man: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. According to Fast Company, it was Bezos who insisted on crashing into the crowded phone field in the first place, Bezos who demanded unnecessary features like a home screen that tracks your perspective and a camera that can recognize Renaissance paintings. With the Fire Phone, Bezos made the mistake of crafting something he wanted to buy, not something he was able to sell. More damningly, the article paints him as a guy who, above all else, wants his company to be cool. “Risk taking is cool,” Bezos once wrote in an internal memo.1 “Thinking big is cool. The unexpected is cool. Close-following is not cool.”

Of course, if Bezos wants to swim in a pond where perception matters a lot more than profits, he could do worse than streaming television. As traditional viewership continues to erode and the established ways of tracking popularity come up woefully short, the only true winners are the outlets able to ignore old-fashioned ratings completely and focus instead on previously ephemeral concepts like “buzz.” Amazon, like Netflix, offers no tangible information regarding the size or scope of its audience. In fact, Amazon is famously untroubled by actual earnings and is generally devoid of them. Noting its emphasis on perpetual growth above all else, Matthew Yglesias has called the company “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” For Amazon’s momentum-obsessed stockholders, appearances are nearly as valuable as actual currency.

This is why Amazon Studios’ biggest innovation — its willingness to post every pilot it orders in order to be seen and rated by the public — is actually a misdirect. The wisdom of crowds is famously unhelpful when it comes to art and, as critic Tim Goodman pointed out a few days ago, networks have been focus-grouping pilots for decades with little certainty to show for it. (Seinfeld, for example, was one of the lowest-testing pilots in television history.) In fact, it’s not clear if Amazon is even really listening to the feedback it so zealously solicits: According to Goodman, Transparent was the lowest-rated pilot in its entire season. The truth is, Amazon isn’t much interested in what casual viewers think at all.

Which, I would argue, is far more of a game-changer than any halfhearted attempt at democratizing the playing field. In July, studio head Roy Price was refreshingly honest in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter, admitting that a series passionately adored by 30 percent of viewers is far more valuable to him than a series liked by 80 percent — because that 30 percent is not only going to watch every episode, it’s going to be sure to pay for the service2 that delivers them. Price’s outlook is broadcast heresy that is quickly becoming narrowcasting gospel. As it turns out, Amazon’s nichey, personality-driven Fire Phone strategy is a lot more reasonable when applied to television than it is to high-end electronics. After all, no one needs television. What they need is their favorite television, and they need it instantly. Amazon proper relies on the steady hum of a billion quotidian transactions. Amazon Studios, by contrast, relies on the far more unpredictable spikes of a thousand emotional connections. In other words, in order to thrive, Amazon Studios needs to be cool.



Of course, as any human who has ever been 15 can tell you, being cool on demand is basically impossible. And being in the idiosyncratic art business is about as tricky as it sounds. Thus far in Amazon’s life cycle, Transparent is both a triumph and an outlier. It’s not just the only Amazon series to win a major award, it’s also the only one even remotely deserving of being considered for one. (I enjoyed the pilot for Bosch, a smart and lean Los Angeles cop show debuting next month, but have yet to see further episodes.) A post–Golden Globes deep dive into Amazon Prime — including the company’s recently posted fourth pilot season — was far more distressing than inspiring. Just because everyone is suddenly eager to work with Amazon doesn’t mean its decisions are all working out. And that good taste that Jeffrey Tambor mentioned? It was in precious short supply.

Mozart in the Jungle, the first full season to debut since Transparent back in September, went online two days before Christmas — a decision that perhaps reflects Amazon’s slow-dawning realization that there is no good time to launch a twee sitcom about a symphony orchestra. The series, from TV novices Paul Weitz (In Good Company), Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), Alex Timbers (Mozart in the Jungle), and Roman Coppola (these glasses), tracks the gentle fumblings (professional and otherwise) of a young oboeist (Lola Kirke) and a tempestuous conductor (Gael García Bernal). It is, like Transparent, utterly unique and totally fascinating. Unfortunately, it is both of those things for all the wrong reasons. To watch Mozart is to see what happens when television is made by talented individuals who have absolutely no concept of how to make it. Flabby scenes beach themselves like whales, episodes begin and end with shrugs. Bernal, all swinging hair and laughing eyes, gives everything to a nothing part — his maestro, Rodrigo de Souza, is a ho-hum hedonist with a pet parrot and a thing for lazy superlatives (“She plays with blood!”). Whiplash’s Terence Fletcher would literally eat this dodo for lunch then pick his teeth with the baton. It’s both ironic and cruel that a show about beautiful music could be so discordant.

The newer offerings aren’t much better. The best of the lot is a dreamy adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian The Man in the High Castle, a cult novel that imagines a (sur)reality in which the United States lost World War II. The pilot, from former X-Files lieutenant Frank Spotnitz, looks like more than a million bucks. The production design is exquisite, from the cruelly modernist U-Bahn trains lashed across Manhattan like chains to the vision of 1950s San Francisco as a fraught, Japanese fiefdom. It’s the sort of bravura world-building that can inspire both breathless fandom and vicious nightmares. Too bad, then, that the performances are as stiff as Army rations.

Mad Dogs, from the usually reliable Shawn Ryan (The Shield), is a fevered adaptation of a British hit about four middle-aged schnooks thrust into a racy world of guns and grime. (The original was set in Majorca; Amazon transports the action to Belize.) Billy Zane, his body density approaching that of a neutron star, makes an impression, and Romany Malco and Michael Imperioli are strong, though I found a Nazi occupation of America more plausible than their “lifelong” friendship. But not even a legitimately creepy third-act twist can distract from the fact that this is essentially a male-midlife-crisis mobile, bemoaning the emasculating influences of wives and work.

And Cocked, from Lie to Me creator Samuel Baum, is even worse. It’s a hot-button drama that announces its intentions with all the subtlety of a semiautomatic. True Blood’s Sam Trammell is the liberal black sheep of a family of Colorado gun manufacturers; we know he’s weak because he eats kale and doesn’t lie to his wife. When his brother — a coke-snorting, rip-roaring Jason Lee, as broad as the ocean is wide — puts the company at risk, dear old dad (Brian Dennehy) corrals his firstborn into saving the day. Cocked, like the truly execrable Point of Honor — a drama that is, no joke, about noble Southerners who free their slaves but still fight for the Confederacy because, you know, pride trumps racism every time3 — is the inevitable, sorry outcome of television’s relentless stakes race, in which seemingly taboo themes are valued above characterization and tone. Only a handful of these pilots are likely to go to series. (My money would be on The Man in the High Castle and Mad Dogs.) But their promotion is still disappointing, particularly since Amazon promised a relief from this sort of clatter — Transparent’s artistic triumph has little to do with its subject matter and everything to do with the gentle dramatization of it.

Taken as a whole, Amazon’s vaunted, creator-friendly programming slate is the strongest argument I’ve ever seen in favor of the continued presence of meddling, note-giving, ass-covering network executives. For as much as we talk about an auteurist moment in television, the truth is, TV has always been a collaborative medium. By and large, the scripts that Amazon is choosing are crying out for dissenting voices; they need to be pushed and prodded into something approaching a shape. Just as the Fire Phone taught Jeff Bezos that he’s no Steve Jobs, these recent investments ought to be educating Roy Price that not everyone is Jill Soloway. It’s the rare storyteller who is able to bridge the large, terrifying gap that separates vision from execution. It is a beautiful unicorn who can do it alone.

Some recent moves suggest that Amazon is beginning to understand this. Two weeks ago, it unexpectedly reversed a decision to move ahead with X-Files creator Chris Carter’s messy sci-fi series The After. It was the right choice: When you’re trying to build a reputation for fine dining, why serve leftovers? And then, last Tuesday, Amazon stunned the world by announcing a deal with Woody Allen for an as-yet-unrevealed original series. Getting one of America’s greatest living — if deeply controversial — filmmakers to play ball is noteworthy in and of itself. But equally important was the way Price went about making the deal. To secure Allen’s services, Price ordered the project straight to series: no pilot, no public vote. This strikes me as a smart recognition of Amazon’s clearest path to success and the best way to achieve it. If you want to be noticed for unique stories, you have to invest unabashedly in the unique people able to tell them.4

So there’s a huge opportunity for Amazon to follow the lead of Transparent and fashion itself as the home for strong, singular voices,5 to be the service that empowers writer-directors who have been priced out of the movie theater6 and scared away from the increasingly conservative tastes of even the most forward-thinking broadcasters. (For all its vaunted innovation, Netflix runs its business based on complex algorithms, with often cynical results.) To do so, Amazon will have to fully renounce its box-ticking, customer-pleasing past and embrace the wild uncertainty of artistic risk, secure only in the knowledge that creators like Soloway and Allen have proven able to satisfy themselves first — and audiences later. In this way, Amazon could actually become the disruptive, creative force in the industry that it already considers itself to be. Here’s hoping. In the end, whether you’re selling binge-worthy television or bulk paper towels, it isn’t about what you offer. It’s about what you’re able to deliver.

Filed Under: TV, amazon, transparent, Golden Globes, Jeffrey Tambor, amazon studios, Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos, Netflix, Roy Price, bosch, mozart in the jungle, Paul Weitz, Jason Schwartzman, gael garcia bernal, The Man In the High Castle, Shawn Ryan, billy zane, Jason Lee, Jill Soloway, Chris Carter, Woody Allen

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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